The title, "The Science of Forgiveness" on a tan background with some green watercolor splashes in the corner

Researchers are finding new ways to put humility under the microscope.

by H. M. Cauley

Could Don Davis and his graduate students uncover the secret to loving, lasting relationships?

While he’s not making any promises, Davis, an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling and Psychological Services, does believe the research of the Humility and the Advancement of Positive Psychology Interventions (HAPPI) lab may uncover strategies that will improve the quality of life for couples and singles.

Investigators at the appropriately named HAPPI lab work on ways to evaluate and measure the roles humility and forgiveness play into an individual’s well-being. It’s an area that has captivated Davis since his undergraduate days at Yale.

“I found a lot of psychology courses were trying to figure out how things work, but there were none on how to integrate spirituality into counseling,” said Davis, a Kennesaw, Ga., native who went on to earn his graduate degree at Virginia Commonwealth University. “The topic of forgiveness was something I heard a lot of people talk about. It often came up in couples’ counseling amid conversations about repairing relationships after hurt. So I did my thesis on psychological and spiritual perspectives of forgiveness.”

After arriving at Georgia State five years ago, Davis started the HAPPI lab to continue exploring forgiveness and humility. Instead of traditional methods of self-reporting, in which subjects rate their own capacities, Davis’s approach is to rely on more measurable factors. Since its inception, the lab has received six grants to fine-tune the research, including $200,000 from Georgia State that created rooms with video cameras and heart-rate monitors that can record a subject’s stress levels. Davis has focused much of the work on couples and relationships.

“We have couples come in and talk about an area of disagreement, and we try to assess humility by seeing how they react in situations that are difficult to be humble in,” he said. “We triangulate the self-reports with the partner reports and then have five researchers watch the videos.”

Researchers also consider two sides of the humility definition. The first comes inside the subject; the second is “other oriented” where investigators “approach humility as a personality judgment measured by seeing how people act,” Davis said.

The result may be an effective way to measure humility that can also predict the likelihood of a couple’s relationship remaining stable.

“We know humility can be linked to positive relationship outcomes of commitment and relationship satisfaction,” Davis said.

While this study has clear connections to contemporary life, Davis doesn’t expect the secret to maintaining long-term relationships will be revealed any time soon.

“The study we’re working on now will take some time,” he said. “We’ll follow the couples we’re working with for two years. But it will still be relevant. There are always challenges to how strong values and convictions can keep people from forming relationships. In trying to relate this interest to society, I don’t have a shortage of things to talk about.”

This story originally ran in the Fall 2016 issue of IN Magazine, the college’s biannual magazine.